The stench of pot overpowered the smoldering cigarette butts on the sidewalk outside of the club. Beside the doors leading inside were two men around Ben's height, but each one twice as wide. The streetlamp illuminated beads of sweat forming on the men's shaved heads as they let a gaggle of girls inside among the synths and percussion. The shortest girl in the back, black hair tied into pigtails, clung to two of her friends' hands as if it were the only thing keeping her upright.
Surely she had better places to be. Ben did. He briefly wondered if he could win his client back if he turned around right now.
But Valentine needs me.
One bouncer grabbed a handkerchief from his pant pocket and swiped it over the wrinkles of his fat face while his eyes lingered on the girls. Ben stepped forward, ID already in hand. The bouncer didn't waste much time comparing the stubbled, pointed chin, fair skin, and brown eyes of the bereft man to the smiling one in the picture.
"Go on," he said.
Ben pocketed his ID and made his way into the chaos.
Bodies. Moving, shimmying, colliding bodies everywhere. Flat and heeled shoes crushed Ben's toes as he weaved his way through the dizzying crowd that hadn't even reached the dance floor yet. And the stench. Part of Ben figured bathrooms didn't need labels when the entire floor wreaked of sweat, piss, and vomit.
"Valentine's scene," he muttered.
Just as Ben thought he was doomed to ask one of the drunks for help, he saw some flickering red signs indicating bathrooms. The wall of bodies hanging around proved too much and too absent for politeness. He shunted through to the doors as he pulled out his cell phone. The green blinking was harried as if it read Valentine's thoughts. Always scared when she went too far. Always begging Ben to find her, hold her, bring her home.
The text message read first floor ladies room so Ben waited for any familiar face to come through the door. It took much longer than he expected. Didn't they have any sense to post someone outside the door? A woman in a dress that just tickled the first curves of her thigh threw the door open. The shine on her forehead and nose was brighter than anything else. Her eyes landed on Ben and narrowed.
"Get in here, stupid!" she yelled. "Use your dumbass muscle man head for once!"
Ben only watched her for another minute. A soreness in the back of his head almost blinded him. When Ben finally grounded himself again, he charged forward, hoping there weren't many other girls that didn't know he was there for Valentine.
The stench clung to the humid air in the bathroom. One stall at the far end had two heeled sandals sticking out of the doorway and another girl standing out front who had no business bending as she was except to beg certain questions. Ben approached. He found his Valentine with her head leaned back against the toilet seat, dress damp down the front. Her eyes were squinted in a strange mix of laughter and pain, but as Ben's shadow covered her, she slowly raised her head. Soft brown curls tumbled into the toilet bowl.
"THERE he is!" Valentine said. Her arms flopped forward to clap. "See? He always comes to save the day! He's my big man! My hero!"
"Come on, Valentine." Ben took her by the moist underarm like a toddler and hoisted her to her unsteady feet.
"Garret, I just knew you would come." Her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "Don't tell Ben about the DJ guy, okay?"
Ben paused and took in Valentine's gait. Her limp arms and crooked legs. The wet curls that fell over her shoulder. The smears of black beneath her bloodshot eyes. Someone-two someone's-found that to be the sexiest vision in the room.
Neither one of them was Ben.
"One of you hold her for a minute," Ben said. The hovering girl took one of Valentine's arms and let it slump around her neck. "Good. Now call her a cab. I'm out."
"What?" the girls chorused. The one who had beckoned him stomped her heel. "What kind of a man are you?"
He didn't reward her with a response.
Ben slid around her even as she stood in his way, begging him to push her, begging him to touch her in any way except to keep her on her shaky feet. He threw himself through the door and strong-armed his way to the front and into the less than fresh air. When his vision cleared of red, he was leaning against the building, chest heaving.
"Must be a party god," came a small voice beside him. A woman shifted her glasses on her nose and smiled. Her jeans and blouse spoke more of a cafe than a club scene.
"Not a party god," Ben said, half breathless. "This isn't my scene. I do other things."
"Oh. Sorry, I wasn't looking to give you my number or anything." Her laugh was stilted.
Ben shook his head. "No, that's cool. I mean, I'd ask, but-we're good."
"I'm Hillary," the woman said, smiling. "Just waiting on friend in there. Took me away from an awesome movie to pick her up."
"Ben. Just watching a friend leave with someone else in there."
Hillary's eyes widened. "Sorry."
Ben only shrugged. "A movie sounds good. Good night. Get home safe."
"You too." They waved, and Ben trudged back to the parking garage. It was the last sixteen dollars he would spend on any girl like Valentine. But a woman like Hillary. A leave-the-movies-for-a-friend type. Well maybe he would find himself a brand of that crazy instead.